Whenever we have something we believe in wholeheartedly, we generally like to believe that our beliefs have materialized off the back of intense scrutiny being applied to the subject.
Indeed, that thing you believe in so fervently must be true because you see so much written about it. You see blogs gushing praise upon it, you see TED talks labeling it the next big thing, you see lots of buzz appearing on social media about it.
The thing is, those are often the results of psychological biases. For instance, when something new we learn about starts appearing everywhere we look, it’s known as the frequency illusion.
The frequency illusion is bad enough if it’s done passively, but when it’s done actively it slips into confirmation bias, whereby we subconsciously hunt down information that confirms what we believe to be true.
The strength of our convictions
A recent study highlights just how pervasive, and how damaging confirmation bias is to our thinking process.
It wanted to test how we respond to information that challenges our beliefs. Do we update our beliefs accordingly or do we try somehow to discredit the information, or indeed downplay the importance of facts to our beliefs?
The researchers conducted a series of experiments whereby participants were shown information from a conference on science and religion. For instance, some participants, of religious convictions, were given information suggesting that the discovery of the Higgs Boson was a potential threat to religion.
The participants reacted to this information by suggesting that their religious beliefs were a result of unfalsifiable things, such as the ‘impossibility of living a moral life without God’.
The study found that this was not limited to purely religious beliefs. Another experiment recruited participants who were either for or against same sex marriages.
They were shown data on the life outcomes of children raised by such parents, with the data showing either a good or bad upbringing respectively. In other words, the data either supported or undermined the prejudice of the participant.
As expected, when the evidence was supportive, it was used to support their argument, but when it was critical, the participants sought to discredit the facts in someway.
The authors believe this occurs because many of our beliefs evolve over time to become less based upon evidence and more a matter of unchallengeable conviction.
Suffice to say, few of our organizational beliefs sit on a par with things such as religion or sexual orientation, but it does nonetheless remind us that evidence is often not enough to change peoples beliefs.
This is often compounded by a web environment where content is in a seemingly never ending supply. Whatever our belief, Google is sure to un-earth some information that will support that belief in some way.
It underlines the importance of having a diverse set of intellects and experiences to call upon in our enterprises, but also a diverse set of information to call upon when crafting our opinions.
In reality, few of us do this. Rather, we find information (or people) that match out existing beliefs, and then tend to stop looking for anything fresh.
Instead, we seek intellectual safe havens. We choose friends and colleagues of like mind, and media sources that say what we think. This is even more so when our beliefs are intertwined with who we see ourselves as being as people.
This reinforcement accumulates over time to the extent that we become so confident that our perspective is the right one that it’s impossible to budge us.
We like to think that this would never happen to us, but can we really be sure? Are you one of the many that succumb to confirmation bias?